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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A win in the season-opening Daytona 500 guaranteed Dale Earnhardt Jr. a spot in NASCAR's title race. It also allowed his Hendrick Motorsports team to live in the moment on the race track and not get hung up on results.
The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is here and the laissez-faire attitude must go. A loaded championship field means there's little room for error in NASCAR's new elimination format.
"Well, we've been sort of on a vacation for 20 weeks. It's time to get to it," Earnhardt said after the "regular-season" finale at Richmond. "But as a company, I don't think we could be any more prepared than we are."
Indeed, Hendrick Motorsports got all four of its cars into the Chase when Kasey Kahne snatched a berth with his win at Atlanta two weeks ago. They'll go head-to-head with Team Penske, which has matched Hendrick all season in performance.
But not to be overlooked is Kevin Harvick, who has been one of the strongest cars in the field for 26 weeks. Harvick has pit crew issues that must be solved or he'll have his hands full with the Hendrick and Penske drivers.
Here's a look at the top teams in the 16-driver Chase field:
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS: Jeff Gordon led the points race most of the year and combined with Earnhardt and defending champion Jimmie Johnson for nine victories in 26 races. All three drivers are three-time winners this season, and all have performed at a much higher level than Kahne, who was in danger of not even making the Chase before his win at Atlanta.
Gordon, who won his fourth title in 2001, is having a career resurgence and Earnhardt is desperately seeking his first Cup title. But Johnson wants ring No. 7, which would tie him with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most in NASCAR history.
Johnson had one of his typical summer swoons — he had only one top-10 finish in a six-week span — before snapping out of it in early August. He reeled off four consecutive top-10s the last month, but had a bout of dehydration following Saturday night's race that left the triathlete puzzled.
"There's something that went wrong today," Johnson said after receiving five liters of intravenous fluids. "It could have been my own nutrition plan. I felt like I came in plenty hydrated."
Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson are expected to be contenders when the Chase opens Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. But it remains to be seen if one of the Hendrick drivers can separate himself from his teammates.
TEAM PENSKE: Brad Keselowski entered this season determined to prove he was not a one-year wonder in 2012 when he won his championship. He failed to make the Chase last season and was ineligible to defend his title, but came back this year to earn the top seed in the field.
He picked up his series-best fourth win of the year Saturday night at Richmond, where he humiliated the field by leading all but 17 of the 400 laps. Now Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano, a three-race winner this year, are ready to go toe-to-toe with the Hendrick heavyweights.
"He was down maybe last year, but came back this season. He's been outstanding," team owner Roger Penske said of Keselowski. "I give him a lot of credit because he's pushing the team. He and Joey together, they're working with each other, trying to find the speed in the cars."
Many have believed all year the championship would come down to Hendrick vs. Penske, and Penske will have to show that its two-car organization can stand up against Hendrick.
KEVIN HARVICK: He'll be joined in the Chase by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, but Harvick has been the far superior driver at SHR this season.
Although he has only two wins to show for his speed, he'd led 1,186 laps and Johnson believes Harvick "should have north of eight wins" this season. One of the most glaring hiccups in his program is his pit crew, which is not at the same level as the other top contenders.
Harvick has lost valuable spots on pit road repeatedly this season, and said it's up to SHR to fix the problem.
"Hopefully they have a plan as to what they think they need to do in the shop with the two teams in the Chase, but that's not my department," Harvick said.
SHR can borrow from the pit crews of Danica Patrick or team co-owner Tony Stewart if that would help Harvick, and Stewart might not object because he very much wants to see one of his cars win the championship. But Stewart is also winless on the season, and has never gone a year without a win, so there could be an emphasis on getting him into Victory Lane in the final 10 races.
Harvick just wants the issue addressed.
"I think our cars are as fast as they need to be. The guys do a great job of bringing fast cars every week," he said. "It's just one mistake after another every week on pit road."